Are we listening?
This article is a reflection on the #ChurchToo conference held at Columbia Bible College May 25–26, 2018. Read more here.
A month after attending #ChurchToo, Columbia Bible College’s conference on professional sexual misconduct, there are a number of voices still echoing in my ears. Those of us in attendance heard many angles of a painful story from long ago, as well as solid teaching on how to respond and establish safeguards. We heard plenary speakers, workshop leaders, and members of panels. All were worthwhile. But a couple of voices in particular have lodged in my memory.
The most gripping, most haunting, was the story from “ground zero” of the incidents of sexual misconduct that precipitated the conference – shared by the husband of one of Murray Phillips’ victim-survivors.
Anguish and courage
His was a voice of anguish. The intensity of his story left no doubt that the emotional and spiritual wounds, despite being more than a quarter century old, are still disabling – sometimes seeming raw and bloody, other times thickly scarred.
But his was also a story of courage: his wife coming forward to name the abuse she experienced, and their holding on to faith in God even though the abuse came from within a trusted religious institution.
Counsellor Vange Thiessen was the first to support this survivor through the trauma; she spoke with a voice of stabilizing compassion. Thiessen documented how she walked alongside this woman, listening, taking every word seriously, understanding the dynamics of this sort of wounding, so that her presence, and her words, might be medicine, not further pain.
Thiessen exemplified, in this situation, the best qualities that orbit the biblical word “Paraclete,” a name that beautifully describes the work of the Holy Spirit: comfort, encouragement, advocacy, walking alongside.
Insight and uncomfortable truth
Harold Jantz’s quiet but unflinching voice conveyed pointed insight. As editor of the MB Herald for more than two decades, he is a respected elder with a uniquely thorough view of MB denominational workings (though at the time of the Phillips disclosures in 1991, he was at ChristianWeek, which he founded in 1985).
In the panel discussions, Jantz shared some of his editorial writing from the time, which pointed out serious flaws in the how the college and MB conference leadership handled the disclosures and responded to the survivors. And he did so then, knowing that there could be significant personal cost.
Prophetic and gentle
There are other voices that continue to speak to me, too. Ancient voices, inspired voices.
I hear James the Lord’s brother encouraging us to be quick to listen, and slow to speak (James 1:19) — important guidance for any situation when someone has been abused. Church leaders often have a legacy of being judgmental.
I hear the prophetic voice of Isaiah describe the Spirit of the Servant, the character of our Messiah: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Isaiah 42:3). Such a spirit of gentleness is essential when coming alongside those who are hurt and at their most vulnerable.
And I hear the velvet-brick words of Jesus, speaking to the (self-)righteous elders accusing a woman “caught in the act of adultery” (John 8).
Obviously, a woman alone cannot be “caught in the act” – there would have been a man, and yet he is missing from the story. The elders, it seems, are covering for this absent adulterer – an early biblical example of the far too common reality of an “old boys club.”
We too are in great danger of complicity if we do not respond rightly to such difficult and delicate situations.
Back to the voices at the conference – sharing their pain, compassion, and wisdom.
All of these, as far as I can remember, are Mennonite Brethren voices (at least, at the time of the events in question). In other words, this was a situation taking place wholly within our denominational walls, within our family.
Regrettably, current MB leadership (pastors and church workers) seemed, with a few exceptions, conspicuously absent from this conference. As CBC president Bryan Born wrote prior to the conference, Mennonite Brethren appear to be “lagging behind” the current #metoo conversations of abuse, power, and sexual violence (MBH Spring 2018). One certainly got this sense at the conference.
But, like the elders Jesus confronted, I’m in no position to cast stones today. I have been an MB pastor, I have been an MB Bible school teacher, I have been involved in provincial and binational leadership boards. And all of this in the era after the Phillips disclosures.
I recognize I too have failed; I have been less perceptive, less prepared, and definitely less proactive in preventing or responding to sexual violence, than today’s pastoral ministry and church leadership demands. I need to own my part in what looks like a larger denominational reluctance or even denial, when it comes to preparation for dealing with sexual misconduct among church leadership.
And thus I’m grateful for the voices of wise women and men, such as we heard at #ChurchToo, to show me the way.
My profound hope, of course, is that there will be no more victims, in our churches and in our communities. But as part of that hope, we must – absolutely must – do everything we can to avoid churches becoming places of revictimization and further pain.
Lord, help us do our homework, listen well, respond with compassion, and offer the best healing your Spirit can work through us.
[Randy Klassen lives in Saskatoon, where he and his wife are members of Lakeview Church. He works as national coordinator for MCC Canada’s restorative justice program.